Rugby Union: The nations who need a starter for 10

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER else comes out of the batch of internationals faced by England and Wales over the next few weeks, and I hope there's not a lot of gloom involved, it is essential that they both emerge with a firm choice at outside-half.

A successful World Cup campaign next year will depend on both being able to compete on a 15-man basis and that means having a good decision maker in the No 10 shirt. At the moment, neither team seem settled in this department and that could be fatal.

It's not that I am permanently biased towards the importance of stand- offs but the more I look at the modern game the more I see the need for creative thought. If you care to examine the three previous winners of the World Cup they each had a dominant controller in the position - Michael Lynagh for Australia, Grant Fox for New Zealand and Joel Stransky for South Africa.

Next year will not be any different, because these are still the men who win you matches. Harlequins are a case in point. They struggled through the first part of this season but Thierry Lacroix comes back and suddenly they look a good side again.

When you think of those who could do a similar job for England and Wales there's no one whose current form demands selection at outside-half for either of the national sides. I was discussing this point with the Quins coach, Zinzan Brooke, last week and he expressed the view that many players in this country lack "the smell" for the game. They are undoubtedly fitter and faster but they are like robots. They have lost the instincts of their predecessors, and the number of genuine play-makers has dwindled.

It is an extremely good point but not much help to coaches Clive Woodward and Graham Henry and the only way they are going to get over the problem is to make a decision over the next game or two and stick with their choice. Given time and patience, the players concerned will have the chance to gather the necessary confidence and experience to do the vital job in 11 months' time.

Players do react to having the faith of the coach and the team placed in them. As usual, New Zealand provide the perfect example of this. Back in the days when Frano Botica and Grant Fox were rivals for the No 10 All Blacks' shirt, Botica was the better runner and Fox the better kicker. In the end, the selectors favoured Fox, which caused Botica to turn to rugby league.

The selectors' faith in Fox was repaid when he blossomed into a great decision maker. But Botica, meanwhile, developed into a great kicker - which helps to prove that it is all about opportunity because if he had been the one the All Blacks chose, he would probably have been just as successful for them.

A similar situation exists now in New Zealand between Carlos Spencer and Andrew Mehrtens. The All Blacks tend to play them both which has been more of a hindrance than a help. Sooner or later, they must choose one of them to take the main decision-making role.

The problem facing England and Wales is not quite the same because they do not have people of that calibre but they still have time to allow someone to grow into the role. England have the more difficult task because they have so little to go on. Paul Grayson seems to have been more on the bench than on the field for Northampton this season; Mike Catt has at least been playing at stand-off for Bath, but was preferred as a winger for England last summer; Jon Wilkinson is played in the centre by Newcastle; and Alex King of Wasps doesn't seem to be in the reckoning.

Woodward says he doesn't care what the clubs do but it surely helps if a man is playing the same position every week. This may suggest that he will go for Catt but I find it difficult to form an opinion. All I know is that Woodward has to put his faith in one of them and hope that he can begin to stamp his authority. Even if he does that against the likes of Holland and Italy, it will be a start.

In Wales, Neil Jenkins is under pressure because Pontypridd haven't been having a very good time and, with Arwel Thomas injured, there is speculation that Henry will switch newly-qualified Welshman Shane Howarth to outside- half. Howarth is a very good kicker so the move might be on.

However, Neil is well used to pressure and has shrugged it off to compile a great points record in internationals. Playing for Ponty hasn't been easy, so perhaps a move up to Wales will be just the breath of fresh air he needs. But, whoever gets the nod, if he shows the appetite for what is required in the World Cup he should be cemented into the job from now on.

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